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Franchises on the Move

Chaos in Phoenix just the tip of iceberg ahead

The headlines in Buffalo these past two months were all “Pegula, Pegula” as ownership of the Buffalo Sabres changed hands for the fourth time in franchise history. And while this was a good outcome for Buffalo and fans of the Sabres, there are huge shifts happening around the National Hockey League that might change the face of the league in the next few years and return hockey to two NHL-starved hockey hotbeds north of the border.

To begin with, there is the case of the Phoenix Coyotes. This franchise began its days as the Winnipeg Jets, but was relocated to the desert following the 1995-96 season, brutally ripping out the hearts of die-hard Jets fans.

The result has been a disaster. Despite opening a shiny new arena as the centerpiece of a planned mixed-use new community in Glendale, the team has failed to gain traction in Arizona, and now the NHL is operating the bankrupt franchise as it seeks a new ownership configuration. The white knight here is a Chicago businessman named Matthew Hulsizer, who is stepping in to buy the team and keep it in Phoenix, with the proviso that the City of Glendale sell $100 million in bonds to assist with the purchase of the team. A private entity named the Goldwater Institute is suing to block the transaction, claiming that such a sale violates their state constitution’s transfer of public funds to a private entity.

Meanwhile, a consortium of Winnipeg interests led by Mark Chapman have been quietly putting together the capital, cultivating relationships within the NHL and with Commissioner Gary Bettman, and prepping their community for their return to the NHL. The city opened its new downtown arena, the MTS Center, back in 2005, which, although small by NHL standards (15,500 seats), still has the revenue-generating amenities needed to make a big league team work.

Phoenix isn’t the only franchise in trouble. Down in Atlanta, the ownership group called the Atlanta Spirit is in desperation mode, seeking new investors to help the troubled Atlanta Thrashers stay afloat. The team has endured annual losses in the $20 million range for several years, and the team is ranked 29th in attendance. The league is in no position to step in and run yet another troubled franchise, and in a twist of irony, it may be a foot race between the Thrashers and the Coyotes as to who gets to Winnipeg first.

While the New York Islanders have a stable and deep-pocketed owner in the form of Charles Wang, their arena situation is far less certain. Nassau Coliseum in Hempstead, the only venue in which the team has ever played, is the worst arena in the league: small, cramped, and lacking premium amenities. The Islanders have advanced a mixed-use redevelopment of the entire site that they refer to as the Lighthouse Project, which would add 2,300 new homes and mixed-use retail and office development in conjunction with a total overhaul of the arena. The state likes it, the voters like it. Everyone seems to be on board.

Enter the Hempstead town board, which in essence blew up the project late last year, throwing in restrictions to the size of buildings and reducing the footprint of the project to the point that it no longer makes economic sense. Wang has been silent as to his next move. New York State could give Native American sovereign designation to the Shinnecock Nation, essentially taking the local jurisdiction out of the mix.

If the Islanders end up moving, Quebec City could be their next destination. Hockey fans there were stunned when the Nordiques left town 15 years ago and are salivating over the chance to come back to the NHL.

Last month, the Quebec provincial government and the Quebec City municipal government unveiled plans to build a new $400 million arena within close proximity to their current venue, Le Colisee, which housed the Nordiques and is now home to their junior club. The new arena will be named the Videotron Amphitheatre, in a $33 million naming rights deal for that region’s cable giant. And when is the building slated to open? 2015, the same time the Islanders lease at Nassau Coliseum expires.

Fleur de lis-wearing Quebec fans are already chomping at the bit. Earlier this season, more than 1,100 fans wearing Nordiques blue colors made the trek to Long Island, filling one end of the lower bowl at an Islanders game and making a noisy statement that they want their team back, and the bull’s-eye is squarely on the Islanders franchise.

Two other franchises, the St. Louis Blues and the Toronto Maple Leafs, are on the market, though don’t expect either of those two teams to be going anyplace anytime soon. Then there’s Jim Balsillie. Remember him? The Research In Motion guy from Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario is still looking to bring the NHL to Hamilton. Don’t be surprised if we haven’t heard the last of him.


• Fan Appreciation Night, April 8, should be one of the most epic ever, with all players to have ever worn the Sabres uniform welcome to take part in this celebration. Will Taro be invited to participate in the festivities?

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